Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night—nor fascism, as a meme from a postal workers union put it this week—is supposed to prevent the United States Postal Service from swiftly delivering the mail. But right now, apparent meddling from the Trump administration on top of a still-raging pandemic has pushed the agency to its limit. Over the last few weeks, overhauls of USPS operations have reportedly thrown its service into disarray. Democrats have accused the administration of trying to sabotage the agency after new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy moved forward with a significant restructuring that imposed a hiring freeze for leadership positions and reassigned or displaced 23 executives.
The changes were purportedly made in the name of efficiency, but critics fear that it gives more power to DeJoy, a Trump and GOP donor, to undercut the mail-in voting infrastructure that many people will rely on with the ongoing pandemic. In fact, the Washington Post reported on Friday that USPS sent letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee that all ballots cast by mail will be delivered in time to be counted for the November election. USPS has also been removing mail-sorting machines that employees rely on in facilities around the country, and there have been delivery delays across the country, which followed changes to how much overtime carriers are allowed to take and transportation cuts.
How bad does all of this look on the ground? To get a sense, I spoke to a USPS carrier named Aaron who works in Cleveland. (He requested his full name not be printed.) We discussed how the pandemic has affected the agency’s mission, whether the new rules and cuts have led the mail to “snowball,” and why he thinks—for now—mail-in voting should be safe.
Slate: Let’s go back. How has the coronavirus affected your job over the past few months?
Aaron: It’s gotten a lot busier, because everybody’s staying at home doing online shopping. It’s been a pretty big uptick in parcel volume. As far as the safety measures, it took a while for them to really get serious and provide masks and make sure that we’re doing social distancing. It’s been a little frustrating watching a lot of my co-workers not take it seriously. They would just keep their masks on their chins and wouldn’t social distance properly. It seemed like management was hesitant to really enforce any of the restrictions.
I’m definitely wearing a mask whenever I’m going in and out of businesses and whenever I’m in the office. I keep the hand sanitizer on me. I’ve got a 10-mile route, and I barely interact with people. It’s easy to social distance once I’m out there. It’s kind of funny because people have been bored at home, especially in the beginning, so they’d just wait on their porch and want you to hand them their mail, but it hasn’t been too bad. They’ve been very understanding to let me just put it in their box.
Have the recent changes to USPS leadership and policy affected your day-to-day job at all?
They’ve stopped calling people in on their days off to try to cut down on overtime, but it doesn’t really address the root of the problem, which is that we’re understaffed. They put in a hiring freeze, which doesn’t help either. Instead of volunteering on our days off to come in, they’re giving most of us one to two hours of overtime and longer days—shifting it around a little bit, it seems. I’m working about the same amount. I’m on the overtime list [of people who used to be called in on days off], so I guess it’s kind of nice to have an extra day off now.
It does seem silly because it’s pretty evident that DeJoy came in as postmaster general, took one quick look at the place, and started making big overhauls without really understanding what the core issues are. I’m concerned that since he has overseen working conditions like these [pregnancy discrimination cases] at his previous companies, how we may face similar issues as management focuses more on profitability over customer service and employee treatment in the future. It’s of note that the Postal Service is just that—a service for the American people—not a for-profit business, for what that’s worth.
Another issue is the bill that was passed in 2006 under the Bush administration that mandates pre-funding [the agency’s pension fund] 75 years into the future. That basically creates this artificial loss in revenue. It seems to be a political move to show us as being perpetually in trouble. It shows that we are unprofitable, because every time they hire somebody, they have to put down on paper that their retirement has been pre-funded. No other company was held to that kind of standard. It’s a handicap for the Postal Service.
What does understaffing look like at your job?
It means more hours. It hasn’t been too terrible, and our station system doesn’t seem to have been as affected as other people’s. I haven’t really noticed too much of a delay in mail or service from my route specifically. I’ve heard from other people that management is coming in and saying, “You need to leave these [mail] trays.” We’ve always been instructed to deliver all the mail and come back late if we need to, but I’ve been hearing that a lot of people are being told to bring back the mail and then deliver it tomorrow, which creates a snowball effect. If you’re delivering today’s mail tomorrow, and tomorrow’s mail the next day, it piles up.
Trays of mail come to us from downtown, most of it comes in already sorted. If it comes in a little bit late, people have been instructed not to wait for it. That means they’ll have double the work tomorrow, and it runs them further behind.
Do you think USPS can handle mail-in voting?
Absolutely. We handled the census just fine, and every single person got three or four notices in that time frame. That was nothing for us to really stumble over. Operating the way that we have been would be just fine. We scale up for the Christmas season, which is just an absolute nightmare of packages, and we adapt and make it through just fine. More ballots wouldn’t really present an issue under normal circumstances, but we’ve been hearing about delays under DeJoy.
Have you been concerned generally about what you’ve been hearing in the news about USPS?
Certainly. I’m three years into my career here, and I just made regular. You start out as a part-time employee for up to about two years—you’re called a city carrier assistant. Once you make it through that, you get converted into a regular full-time employee. So now I’m looking forward to having a long and prosperous career and providing for my family. It kind of sounds like they’re trying to undermine our efforts and turn this into something that can be privatized.
Do you think your job is safe?
I hope so. On good days I remember that the post office is explicitly defined in the Constitution —Article 1, Section 8. They’re going to have to move mountains to get rid of us, but on bad days I see those mountains starting to move.
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